Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Message for big tobacco - it's time to butt out

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Prime Minister John Key says he will not support the bill becoming law until the tobacco industry's legal challenges are resolved. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key says he will not support the bill becoming law until the tobacco industry's legal challenges are resolved. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The bully boys of American trade and industry have issued a thinly veiled threat of repercussions to New Zealand's wine and dairy exports, if the Government persists with plans to force tobacco to be sold in plain packaging.

Now if Parliament was about to pass laws insisting that books and CDs and car imports be marketed in New Zealand in plain wrappers, I would be up in arms as well. But in this case, the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Foreign Trade Council, Emergency Committee for American Trade et al, are going into bat for the peddlers of a deadly drug - one which, if used according to the manufacturers' instructions, will kill one out of every two of its long-term consumers, robbing each, on average, of 15 years of life.

But the US business lobbyists quickly skirt around the unpleasant reality that their colleagues in the tobacco industry kill about 5000 New Zealanders a year.

Instead, they wail that plain-packaging rules will "destroy [the] intellectual property" of the tobacco giants and be a "systemic threat to rules which intellectual property rights and the trading system ... are dependent upon".

Then comes the threat. "We encourage the New Zealand Government to consider the concerns we have raised for the possible impact on New Zealand exports, such as dairy and wine, should other governments feel emboldened to take similar unwarranted measures."

Unlike the British Government, which appears to have buckled under such threats, the Key Government, with strong nudging from its Maori Party coalition partner, yesterday introduced plain packaging legislation into Parliament.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister John Key says he will not support the bill becoming law until the tobacco industry's legal challenges before the World Trade Organisation against identical Australian legislation is resolved.

To me, a bit of Anzac mateship at this time would show the WTO and the tobacco giants that the Aussies are not alone. It might also put some moral pressure on fence-sitters like the UK to take a stand when the health and wellbeing of their citizens are at stake.

It is bizarre that the right and wrongs of importing and marketing of a killer drug by foreign manufacturers is reduced to a legal tussle over the arcane wording of trade treaties, decided by international bureaucrats at the WTO.

The health and well-being of citizens is supposedly the number one concern of a sovereign government.

Cigarette manufacturers have long admitted the deadly nature of their product. Last year, after the Cabinet agreed, in principle, to plain packaging legislation, Chris Bishop, New Zealand spokesman for tobacco giant, Philip Morris, admitted on TV One's Q+A he enjoyed "an occasional cigarette". Asked if he accepted "all the bad stuff that goes with it", Mr Boyd replied, "Yes, absolutely. It's a dangerous product that's harmful to your health."

And yet the industry wants us to believe the real issue is about protecting their trademark rights.

For years now, governments have pussy-footed around the obvious. If the inventors of modern day recreational drugs were to suddenly discover tobacco for the first time on some remote island and tried to add it to their stock, they'd be put out of business, it's so toxic. It survives as a legal commodity only because its been around for several hundred years.

But instead of outlawing it, and hounding its manufacturers for compensation for the misery their product inflicts, governments try to dissuade users - by then, physically addicted - from further indulging.

Given the reluctance to issue an outright ban on manufacture and sale, the easy way around that would be to amend the Psychoactive Substances Act to include tobacco products. Passed last year, it requires the manufacturers of party pills and synthetic cannabis to prove their products are of "low risk of harm" to users before they can market them.

With tobacco, there's such a library of evidence, much of it from the files of the tobacco giants, proving the deadly nature of this drug, that there is no way cigarettes would pass this basic test. The WTO and the tobacco giants would become a laughing stock if they were then to resort to issues of trade mark protection.

The party drug manufacturers have to prove their products are of "low risk" to users. The pharmaceutical industry has to go a step further and demonstrate its goods are safe for human use. Neither group can just march in, waving trade marks in the air and demanding the right to unleash unapproved drugs on unsuspecting New Zealanders.

The anomaly is that tobacco companies can, for no other reason than they always have, even though smoking is the world's second-biggest killer after high blood pressure. It will continue to be so, until governments run Philip Morris and mates, trademarks and all, out of town for good.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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